Relevance in an age of forgetting

Occasionally it happens that in one particular class, I feel that I am simply not getting through. This always leads to introspection. So I look for ways to improve my teaching. This time, I’m getting a message that doesn’t make sense to me, although I’ve nodded and promoted it for a number of years.

The issue is student engagement. There is tacit agreement that keeping students interested and engaged is a Good Thing. However, after much thought, I’m starting to think that this emphasis is detrimental to good teaching and learning. As a historian, I also fear it will damage my discipline as, well, a discipline by encouraging a lack of…discipline.

We often face classes of staring, bored-in-advance students waiting to be entertained. There’s an excellent post by Dave Graser on how to flip a zombie. He meant flipping a bored class (assigning static material for out of class, and using class for discussion) and connecting it to contemporary issues to engage students. The ideas are exciting, and are behind the whole movement of “flipping” classes.

We also have students who are completely unprepared for the rigors and habits of college-level study. Alford and Griffin on Faculty Focus: Teaching Underprepared Students, claim that the solution for such an unready, disengaged group is “relevance, relevance, relevance”. We must figure out where students are, and then bring them to the subject through connecting their experience to our material.

We are also told can engage them through fun activities, gaming, modern colloquialisms, or pop culture. Dynamic lecturing, new technologies, new approaches, should all be designed to encourage their engagement in our course.

The premise of all this is that teachers have the responsibility is to make things “relevant” and exciting, so that students will stay engaged and maintain focus. It is natural to want happy, active students. I want them too! But there are several problems. One is that the current prescription puts the burden of engagement on the instructor rather than the student, leading to dependency. Another is that trying to effectively engage students can lead to a “dumbing down” of ones discipline.

cc popefelix via Flickr

In short, the current emphasis on student engagement is misguided.

The Instructor’s Role in Engagement

The suggestion, way out there in not-much-research-land, is that engagement equates as student success in the class, presumably in the form of high grades and an advanced level of work.

The problem is that engagement doesn’t do that – engagement makes it interesting to do well if you are already capable of doing well. It cannot ensure doing well if you’re not able to succeed, for whatever reason. I know students who are totally engaged in History, and very enthusiastic, but will not accept instruction in either the discipline or how to express it. Their “teacher” is the History Channel, the things they’ve already read or heard about, and the workings of their own mind, independent of facts and habits of cogent analysis. They are engaged, but cannot construct a coherent historical argument nor back it up with sources.

By the same token, those who do not like the class, or are “disengaged”, may do very well. This is particularly true if they are self-directed and cognizant that they don’t like the class. They push harder to do good work because they want a high grade. Engagement is a side effect, one I encourage by allowing students to pursue their own topics.

I do want them to enjoy their work – that’s important to the quality of the class, providing the opportunity. But it is just, as I’ve indicated before in my post about “student success”, an opportunity. If I don’t provide an opportunity for engagement, by creating a class with both clear direction and some room for exploration, I am not doing my job.

But I cannot force engagement – no one can. And we cannot delude ourselves that we can even track it. I cannot tell whether a student who is looking at me while I lecture or doing the work enthusiastically in her group is learning history or thinking about lunch. Similarly, I can’t assume that the student staring at his desk is not listening and learning. Online, we are deceived by data such as the number and length of log-ins, which is faulty the moment a student leaves to get a sandwich with the lecture screen open, or logs in twelve times a week because they have a nervous disposition.

But these days it is not enough to just provide opportunity and access. If students do not engage, it is my fault, or the fault of the design of my class (my design). They drop because I have not engaged them enough.

I just don’t buy it – teaching and learning doesn’t work that way. I can give them the dance floor and the lessons, but they need to engage the dancing by stepping out there and giving it a whirl. Much of their willingness and ability to do so is beyond my control.

The problem of intellectual integrity

In the above articles, it is advised that we should engage students emotionally first. I know a history instructor who does this, and does it beautifully. He starts his lectures with horrific images or stories of human cruelty. Once students are upset about the injustice being portrayed, they want to know the background, so he gets into the facts in the lecture.

At first, I believed I was just not cut out to lecture that way. But after awhile I realized it isn’t my storytelling ability – I actually have pedagogical issues with the whole approach. An emotional approach is inherently anti-intellectual. It also leads to emphasizing primary and secondary sources that have an extremist viewpoint. There are moral lessons to be sure, but also a real danger of encouraging a “History Channel”, sensationalist approach to history. I have always had trouble with role-playing as a technique for teaching history for the same reason. Although I am enchanted by such projects as the Titanic re-enactments on Twitter (and now, Jack the Ripper), I cannot bring myself to use such a technique with my students. The gamification of education causes the student to focus on side issues instead of learning historical skills (despite the enthusiastic teachers who assign Civilization IV or promote “what if” alternative history).

We are told that we must make history relevant by continually connecting historical events and ideas to those in comtemporary life, and we strive with increasing difficulty to find current affairs with which students are familiar. But again, the approach is misguided. What makes history “relevant” is not related to immediate things, or things that are part of students’ daily lives. And when we emphasize those current connections (having students construct their family histories, or their own) we give the wrong impression of what the historical field is all about.

A great forgetting

Nicholas Carr (in The Atlantic) reports the extent to which our computer dependence causes us to forget how to do things. He uses flying a plane as an example – accidents these days are the result of human error due to lack of practice, rather than mechanical failure. After reading his article, I used an example in my class when students said that the compass was a significant medieval invention. Yes, it was, but it also led to dependence on the techonology – fewer and fewer people would be able to read the sky to know where they were. One of my students came up afterward and told me of a camping trip where they had forgotten their standard compass, and could not figure out how to use the fancy electronic compass on an expensive watch. Only one of them knew where the sun would be, to help find their way.

The final danger is that as we trivialize history to make it relevant, we will forget how to practice skills required for the discipline. Many people are already forgetting how to read a sustained argument, which is essential for understanding many significant historical documents. We are forgetting how to find things in books, how to gloss dense text, and how to take good notes. We are losing the ability to retain information, because we know we can easily look it up.

I used to assure students that they did not need to memorize historical facts, since we could look them up. Now I’m not so sure. To not memorize anything is to allow an important habit of mind to rust into uselessness. Should we really cater to short attention spans with 10 minute videos and breaks in the classroom action every 15 minutes? Perhaps it would be better to teach students how to analyze a document carefully, how to take notes on a document, how to focus on one thing for awhile.

As I noted recently on Twitter, our “customer” in public education is society, not the student. Right now, society in this country is on an anti-intellectual bender, defying rationality in its political system and reducing the financial support for higher education. To cater to students’ demand for entertainment and short “chunks” of information is to further the aims of those who would prefer an uneducated public (as I’ve noted about online “providers”). It is usually the goal of historians to encourage an understanding of the past in order to improve the future. And I’m not sure we can do that if we continue bowing to the gods of student engagement.

4 thoughts on “Relevance in an age of forgetting

  1. Very thought-provoking stuff here, but I guess I am coming at this from a totally different angle, so I don’t share the doubts you express here about student engagement as a primary goal to measure my success as a teacher. My doubts are more about the disciplines themselves, but that is because I teach in a Gen. Ed. context.

    Specifically, I teach Gen. Ed. courses in the Modern Languages department at my school; one course is Mythology and Folklore (which could have all kinds of disciplinary labels – literature, folklore, anthropology, etc.) and the other course is Indian Epics (which, again, could fall under various disciplines – literature, religious studies, South Asian area studies, etc.) But the students are not taking my classes because of any particular disciplinary interest. None. They are taking the classes to fulfill a Gen. Ed. requirement which is helpfully labeled “Western Culture” and “Non-Western Culture.” Hard to get more vague than that. My own disciplinary training is as a classicist and a folklorist, but I have no particular inclination to instruct my students in those disciplines.

    Instead, I realize that my courses are at the bottom of my students’ priority list, so, in order to keep them from wasting their time (and therefore mine), I definitely need to find a way to get them to engage. I do not try to do that through teaching the disciplinary skills of classics or anthropology or whatever; instead, I focus on writing skills. They work really hard on that; I do too. It’s very time-consuming, but also very rewarding.

    And, I have to say, in a showdown between imparting disciplinary skills and imparting writing skills, I think the writing skills are more important for my students. But how many Humanities faculty members really grapple with their students’ writing? I mean REALLY grapple with it? Judging by my students’ writing (and they are college seniors for the most part), the Humanities faculty have really decided to abandon the teaching of writing. Presumably because they are bowing down to the gods of their disciplines rather than to the god of writing. (Let’s call her Saraswati, ha ha.)

    Personally, I think teaching writing is a great choice. The students appreciate the value of writing skills (even if they are reluctant writers themselves), and they see its benefits as their writing improves over the course of a semester. I think those skills are more teachable than, say, an attempt to make my students into “faux classicists” or “faux anthropologists” for a semester, trying to mimic a discipline that is utterly alien to them. I mean, they come from all colleges; I have pre-med and pre-dental students, pre-law students, violin majors, graphic design majors, chemical engineering majors, entrepreneurship majors, and on and on and on. I hope that in their majors they are getting a solid disciplinary foundation. As a Gen. Ed. instructor, though, that is really not my problem.

    Teaching writing also has the advantage of naturally turning the students into creators in the class, and their active role as creators can be a huge engagement-booster. Plus, it really puts the burden of work more on them than on me. Each student gets appx. 20-30 minutes of my individual time per week, but they are putting in 6-8 hours of their own work for the class. It’s a balance that makes sense, and it really maximizes my time (as their writing coach and editor) in a way that also maximizes their engagement. Does that count as bowing down to the gods of student engagement? If so, I do so devotedly. 🙂


    1. Laura, thanks so much for commenting!

      I also teach History as G.E. so am very sensitive to the overall influence of what they learn, and I applaud your emphasis on teaching writing. Writing is indeed significant to all learning in the Humanities, and the difficulty so many students have with it needs to be dealt with. The breadth in your area makes that focus possible, and I think writing may be, in this case, the discipline being taught. The areas I note that may be disappearing all pertain to writing as well as History.

      But I am not concerned about the History majors – my focus is also G.E. and to a great extent I am focused on writing also. My sensitivity, though, is about the habits of mind engendered by disciplines in all areas, and if we dumb things down to encourage engagement without rigor, we do society a disservice. I don’t see your approach as bowing at all to the gods of engagement, but rather that engagement (with the material and the work, not just with you) is part of what you do to improve their writing.


  2. This is such an important topic, Lisa, and I am really glad for a chance to talk about it, especially with someone who is working within a discipline and committed to that!

    When you say that writing could be the discipline I’m teaching, I’m not sure that works – because of course there is an academic discipline, a rigorous academic discipline, of writing that can be and is taught (there are professors of creative writing, professors of professional writing, professors of technical writing, etc. at my school … and I am not among their ranks).

    Yet many of the students in my classes are not ready for those classes where writing is the discipline in a rigorous, academic sense. I’m doing something much more basic. I’m teaching what could be counted as high school writing, but doing it in such a way that it is also helpful to students with college-level writing skills (because everybody needs more practice writing, of course!). Thank goodness, teaching online gives me the flexibility to work with the students at all levels (including the professional writing majors who sometimes take my classes for the low-stress and unlimited experimental opportunities those classes provide).

    As I am sure you know very well indeed, some college students are not writing at a college level (and, I would wager, not really reading at a college level, but that’s harder for me to assess directly). My fear is that we are doing society a disservice if we don’t teach the students “where they’re at.” Of course, if I felt more loyalty to my academic discipline, I might feel differently about that. But I think teaching Gen. Ed. is more important to society than any work I could do as a classicist, and why so many of the defending-the-Humanities manifestos leave me cold. I’d be much more quick to rally to a more general defense of literacy, first and foremost, above and beyond the academic disciplines that drive the academic majors.


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